With millions of Indian and Pakistani film watchers and enthusiasts talking about Shahrukh Khan’s latest film Pathaan, I finally mustered the energy to go and watch the blockbuster. Not just the staggering figures of how much it collected at the box office (apparently Indian Rs 949 crore on its 19th day), the film has been discussed, admired and criticised endlessly in both regional and even western media. Everyone has their excuse to watch: I recently spoke with a friend, who said that she went to watch it for John Abraham, which would come as a surprise for anyone that only thinks of Sharukh Khan as a heartthrob. Not to mention those that were thrilled with the endless action and motorcycle racing on unbelievably iced ocean, or angry and frustrated ones like Fatima Bhutto on seeing how Pakistan was depicted.
My first reaction: it’s a lock-your-brain-and-throw-away-the-key kind of a movie – something that one has done many a times even for Hollywood action thrillers. I twitched my nose on the choreography and wondered why director Siddharth Anand thought that he needed to heat up the already hot Deepika Padukone with such physical overexposure. As I told a friend soon after watching the film, this was a ‘one-time watch’ only. However, as I reflected on the experience, I realised that what I had just watched was not just a typical blockbuster but a brilliantly brave movie that employed all the masala available to have a dialogue with today’s India and its majoritarian political overburden.
I was suddenly reminded of my own train journey of decades ago from Rawalpindi to Lahore. It as the early 1980s, when my mother and I had to return to Lahore in an emergency, a first-class coach was all that was available. I can never forget the intense dialogue between an Indian-Muslim family and some Pakistani women sitting right behind us. While the `Pakistani women struggled to impress the Indian women about how their country was so much better than India, the latter argued otherwise. The debate gradually drifted towards the most trivial things and ended as one Pakistani woman boasted about the price of a dozen bananas being Rs 12 (as a sign of how things were affordable in Pakistan). The Indian woman shot back “humarey India mein darjun keley 12 anney key miltey hein” (“in our India a dozen bananas sell for 12 annas”). Her voice echoed of an ownership of India despite the fact that there were many to remind her of the racial divide in the country.
I could hear that woman’s voice in the film – that to me did not sound ridiculous anymore. It was not a simple tale of a good Indian spy versus a bad Pakistani spy but the plea of an Indian Muslim to his own majority not to see him as an outsider.
Pathaan may not be an intellectually perfect movie but it’s certainly a film with a big heart
One could argue that this is not a new battle but dates back to the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 that drew a permanent line of suspicion between Muslims and Hindus in India. Growing up in Pakistan during the 1970s and the 1980s, one constantly heard about racial riots next door. But the Indian Muslims that visited Pakistan would vociferously defend their India. It was more than just the family on the train. I remember visitors like Shamim Hanafi, Jillani Bano, Quratulain Haider, Ismat Chughtai and many others that represented the urban-educated middle class (the same as Shahrukh Khan), who would proudly compare their India with our Pakistan and boasting about their country which was secular and certainly more democratic than ours. When we confronted them with stories of racial riots we were told that was violence centered around economic disparity – Hindu poor versus Muslim poor – or that the government would deflect attention by ignoring violence against Muslims. We were told such violence was sad but not end of the road.
This Muslim middle class and upper class was not necessarily affected by the Pakistan-India rivalry, as they were very nationalist themselves. They probably felt like – or responded like – Shahrukh Khan in the film: when asked by Deepika Padukone (acting as an ISI agent) about his faith his answer was: “I am an orphan who was raised by India” – suggesting that he belonged to all. To reemphasise, this Muslim population was not Pakistan’s but sided with India as things heated up between the neighbouring states during the 1980s. From the clash over Siachen glacier resulting in India’s occupation of the territory, rumours of India’s plan to attack Kahuta to replicate Israel’s attack on the Iraqi reactor at Osiraq resulting in Zia’s stern message that any such attack will lead to Pakistan responding in same coin by attacking Trombey, to, the two major military exercises Brass-Tacks and Zarbe Momin – things were not pleasant.
It was the 1990s when things took a turn. More than Godhra, it was the Babri masjid that turned the tables for the relatively affluent and capable Muslims. Then there were the 1992/93 Mumbai attacks after which the narrative began to turn turtle. I remember attending a seminar in Mumbai during the early 2010s. The conference organisers while talking about India being a hub of Hindu and Buddhist civilisations were too timid or bigoted to mention that Muslim tradition was very much part of India.
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) victory in 2014 proved icing on the cake. Since then, the middle-class Indian Muslim, who had in the last decade risen to the status of a one-and-a-half-citizen got relegated to being a second-class citizen who was expected to remain silent. In today’s India, the Muslim can live but not be seen and heard. Despite being on par with another big Bollywood icon like Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan suffered on account of his son Aryan, who was arrested and put in jail for far less than what elite Indians could get punished for. Therefore, for the iconic actor the issue was to either abandon India or fight back for its soul.
Pathaan, I believe is an act of passion and great daring: looking the BJP government in its eyes and saying that many of the Muslim actors will not give up on India. It is also an effort to remind New Delhi not to see Muslims from one lens – be it Muslims of India or those from Afghanistan. Not only that Shahrukh Khan played a secular Muslim, but had India rescued by an Afghan family that helps him fight the villain. Perhaps, the film was an effort to remind Delhi of how Kabul stood by the former since 1947 even against neighbour and coreligionist Pakistan. Surely, this is something of which hundreds of Afghan students denied an opportunity to return to India to study would like to remind Delhi.
As a Pakistani, I am willing to give Shahrukh Khan the space to use my country as a peg for his eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with his own state at a time when there are so few who can actually do it and remind Delhi not to underestimate his worth as a Bollywood star who can’t be wished away. I would probably also recommend to Fatima Bhutto to watch the film again, as I do not see as targeting Pakistan. In fact, the most villainous character is a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent Jim (acted by John Abraham), instead of Deepika Padukone (the ISI agent) who is not willing to attack India with biological weapons and turns against her own hawkish general. Pathaan may not be an intellectually perfect movie but it’s certainly a film with a big heart – its politics on minority politics and peace both are worth watching.